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The Ellen Payne Odom Genealogy Library Family Tree
The Family Tree - December/January 2003
by Hearthstone Bookshop

Red, White, & Black: Tracing Multiple Blood Lines

If you have roots in the American South, chances are there is at least a rumor, if not a definite tradition, of mixed blood somewhere in your family tree.

Of the many factors that set the South apart from the rest of the country, one factor of particular importance to genealogists is the historical juxtaposition of the three major ethnic groups who occupied the land: Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. While this last group lived in virtually all parts of North America and came in contact with the white man almost from the moment he first stepped ashore, only in the South do we find the close association and interaction of all three cultures on a numerically significant scale. For the family historian, this can create some difficult situations.

For those of you curious about such matters, you first need to understand how these three groups engaged each other and how their relationships might have produced evidence you can now uncover. I realize this may not be the kind of advice that everyone wants to hear. If you have read previous "Toolkit" columns, you know this writer is not a fan of the much-used "shotgun" approach to genealogy--that is, the strategy of quickly "cutting to the chase" by searching as many indexes and databases as possible in hopes of sooner or later hitting on a particular name of interest. Instead, I am a great believer in first developing an historically accurate frame of reference for the people you are pursuing. This has the distinct advantage of narrowing your focus to the world in which your ancestors actually lived--the only world in which you can hope to find them.

In the case of multi-racial bloodlines in the South, there are three possible combinations you might encounter as you work back in time: European and African-American, European and Native-American, or African-American and Native-American. For Caucasians, much has been written about the first two combinations, particularly about white males who had children by female slaves or by Indian partners. Far less attention has been paid to the third possibility (non-Caucasian unions), even though it was not as uncommon as you might assume. For our purposes here, we are going to discuss those people living today who have two things in common: (1) they are predominantly white or black, and (2) they are looking for Native-American forebears in the South. Happily, if you fall within this group, there are two "tools" I can recommend to assist you in your search.

Let's start with the white side of the equation. If your roots are primarily European but you believe you have an Indian link in a Southern state, you need to know about a book called Tracing Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes--Southeastern Indians Prior To Removal by Rachal M. Lennon. This book falls squarely in the category of serious genealogy. That is, it goes to great lengths to give you the kind of historical background you will need to conduct research with some realistic chance of success in this very specialized area.

You probably already know the five tribes in question--Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. You probably also know that the word "removal" in the book's subtitle is a reference to the mass relocation of Native Americans from their homelands in the South to territories west of the Mississippi River, beginning in the 1830s. But you probably don't know how each tribe's culture can (and should) affect how you conduct your inquiries. For example, Ms. Lennon cautions that the "Southeastern Indian's concepts of kin, family, and relationships differed in significant ways from concepts of Judeo-Christian origins. Therein lie the roots of many genealogical problems. Among the most fundamental are ones involving identification of clans and tribes, terms to describe relationships, and taboos that limit both oral and documentary sources."

Ms. Lennon makes the interesting assumption that you are probably looking for your "Grandma's Grandma"--that is, for a female Native American who was born before the Civil War. If that's the case, prepare yourself for a little shock. As Ms. Lennon explains:

"Obviously, if Grandma's Grandma appears repeatedly as a 'white' and 'ordinary' wife and mother in everyday records of the American past, the odds of her being full-blooded Indian are virtually nil. She was more likely at least two or three generations removed. If Grandma's Grandma was indeed born in the mid-1800s, then the genealogist may need to extend the family line to the early 1800s, to the pre-Revolutionary period, or even to the 1600s, before the full-blooded Indian is found. This would particularly be so among the Cherokee."

Ms. Lennon also points out that the person you are seeking might not be female. "While odds favor Indian female-white male couples, the assumption of one begs trouble. Any number of instances can be documented in which white females married Indian males, usually within an Indian village. The Cherokee censuses of 1825 and 1828 reveal that roughly 30 percent of all mixed marriages within the nation were those in which the wife was white and the husband was Indian."

Tracing Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes does not overlook the other scenario in which we are interested: the possibility that some of today's African-Americans may also have Native-American blood. As the author notes, "Runaway slaves frequently sought refuge in Indian villages. Some were returned by the tribes, some were not. Some were enslaved by the Indians, others were allowed to remain as free, and some of the enslaved ones were ultimately manumitted by their red masters. Other blacks were introduced into the tribes by the Indian traders, some as slaves, some as wives or concubines. Manumitted slaves and mulatto children of the traders were frequently absorbed into the tribes, particularly among the Creek and their ethnic kin, the Seminoles...."

At the same time, Ms. Lennon says, "Black-Indian assimilation also occurred when isolated communities of free blacks or mulattoes merged with remnants of Indian tribes. North Carolina's Lumbees and Virginia's Gingaskins, Nansemonds, and Nottaways illustrate just how deep into colonial history one may have to delve to identify the specific ethnic origins of multiracial families."

Ms. Lennon's book points you to numerous kinds of information for investigating Indian lines in the South. Curiously enough, she concludes that the "greatest obstacle to pre-removal research has been not a dearth of records but the breadth of available resources." This should come as especially good news to the many genealogists who feel they have all but exhausted their options for tracking Native-Americans.

Those of you of African descent who are trying to trace an Indian connection should also be aware of another book pertinent to your efforts: Black Indian Genealogy Research--African-American Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes by Angela Y. Walton-Raji. Unlike Rachal Lennon, Ms. Walton-Raji focuses primarily on the "post-removal" period in Southeastern Indian history--that is, the period from about the 1840s to the early 20th century when the Five Civilized Tribes were struggling to survive in the western territories. As bizzare as it may sound, some of these people took their slaves with them on "the trail of tears."

As one example, Ms. Walton-Raji cites the Choctaws, who "began purchasing large numbers of black slaves" prior to removal and subsequently developed various customs regarding their control and treatment. By the 1850s, following removal, "one can find articles [in a bilingual Choctaw newspaper] pertaining to the practice of slavery and the value of slavery to the tribe. It was also common to find in this paper a good number of ads about runaway negro slaves in the Choctaw nation."

The Civil War obviously changed all of this, not just for white plantation owners in the South but for Indian slave-holders in the West. Ms. Walton-Raji describes the lives of freed blacks in the Indian Territory and the problems many of them faced trying to gain legal parity with Native Americans. Blacks with Indian blood were especially oppressed. To claim government benefits, former Indian slaves had to differentiate themselves from freed Southern blacks by establishing their association with one of the Five Tribes. Ms. Walton-Raji explains how to use government records to document such associations.

For more information about the two books recommended here, you can contact their publishers, as follows:

Tracing Ancestors Among the Five Civilized Tribes
(Hardback, 156 pages, $24.95)
Genealogical Publishing Company
1001 North Calvert St.
Baltimore, MD 21202

Black Indian Genealogy Research
(Paperback, 167 pages, $20.50)
Heritage Books
1540 Pointer Ridge Pl.
Bowie, MD 20716

Return to Dec/Jan 2003 index


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